Monday, April 27, 2009
This week we reunite with three characters from the archives, French personnages who have touched me in one way or another. I hope they will touch you, too. Note: a sound file for today's word, and more, can be found at the end of this letter.
The man in line in front of me wore pantoufles two sizes too small. His swollen calves, riddled with eczema, hung over his ankles, which disappeared into his shrunken slippers. As usual, he wore sweatpants that rose mid-calf.
I often see the man in pantoufles hanging out of a village poubelle. He is passionate about garbage and is forever reaching for it. His backside, with the vertical line peeking out from the center of his waistband, is a familiar sight in our village. When he isn't dangling (and flashing) from a trash barrel, he is hunched over, collecting litter from the street, careful to put the waste where it belongs. We have a tidy village thanks to this man, who appears to both love and abhor trash.
Standing in line at the Crédit Agricole, the man wearing pantoufles waited for his turn to visit the bank teller. He had that same blank look on his face, the one he wears while hunting for garbage: expressionless, transfixed by trash—or troubled by it, you never know.
From behind the counter, the pretty guichetière inquired:
"How much today, Jean-Pierre?"
J.-P. stepped forward and replied, "Vingt euros."
"Il n'y a pas. You don't have that much," she answered. "How about fifteen?"
Jean-Pierre nodded, fixing his eyes on a ballpoint pen chained to the comptoir.
"Here you are. And don't spend it all at the Bar des Sports, okay?"
Jean-Pierre remained unresponsive to the guichetière's charm and humor. Though the carefree cashier and the catatonic garbage-picker had this same exchange every day, I stood there, ill at ease about overhearing the limits of J.-P.'s fortune. Not that I didn't know even more about him—and his family (everyone knows everything about everybody in this village. Or so they like to think they do).
Take, for example, J.-P.'s sister, Agnès, who hangs out the clothes to dry along their apartment's tiny 2nd-floor balcony. She does housework in her underwear. The only time she is dressed is in the winter or when she walks her dilapidated dog. She has the exact same corpulent frame as her brother and looks identical to him; only, she wears teal-green eye shadow, caked black mascara and red lipstick when she drinks. Drunk or sober, her hair is a nid d'oiseau. When she's not hanging out clothes, she can be heard a kilometer away, barking orders to their elderly mother.
"J'en ai marre! Mange! Mange! I'm fed up! Eat! Eat!" she says, waving a spoon before her mother.
My own mom, Jules, who lived for a while in a third-floor studio across the street from Jean-Pierre and his family, encouraged me to not be so quick to judge Agnès (pronounced ON-yes).
"She has so many worries," Mom explained. "Poor thing. She has to spoonfeed her mother, who sits there, mouth clamped shut, stubborn as can be. When she does get a spoonful in, her mother just spits it right back out! Then she's got all that laundry. She never stops!"
I tried not to judge Agnès, but I did find myself avoiding her, and I crossed the street at the sight of her and her porto-enflamed cheeks. Something about her seemed déséquilibrée.
One day, while walking to my mom's studio, I saw Agnès slumped over her doorstep. I noticed she was dressed. From her eyes poured two black rivers, down her face, across her red lips and onto her thin, soiled shirt. My mom sat next to Agnès, her arm around the sad woman's shoulder. In front of the women there was a flurry of French paramedics, beyond, a narrow stretcher covered with a long white sheet. My eyes locked on the bundle in the center, beneath le drap blanc.
That evening I saw Agnès' brother snapping up litter from the uneven cobblestone paths of our village. His pants were on straight, and the unsightly crack had disappeared. Gone were his predictable pantoufles. He wore white, canvas tennis shoes, his puffy heels hanging out the back. His face remained expressionless, though his lips sunk a bit at each end. His hair was combed, parted. And just like the garbage collector's shoes, the village was pristine the night they carried Agnès's and Jean-Pierre's mother away.
The trash man may never understand the beautiful bank teller's humor, but Life's comedy is something he knows: as with the never-ending reach of litter, the trick is to keep moving, to keep after it. Life, that is.
* * *
Not sure how to respond to today's story? Maybe you'd rather answer this light-hearted question, instead: Do you, like Agnès, do housework in your underwear? Answers, here.
le personnage = character
la pantoufle = house slippers
la poubelle = garbage can
le Crédit Agricole = the "largest retail banking group in France"
la guichetière = the bank teller
vingt euros = twenty euros
le comptoir = counter
le nid d'oiseau = bird's nest
déséquilibré = unbalanced
le drap blanc = white sheet
un(e) pantouflard(e) = a homebody
The verb "pantoufler" means to leave a government job to work for a private corporation (speaking of a civil servant).
passer sa vie dans ses pantoufles = to live a secluded life
raisonner comme une pantoufle = (to reason like a slipper) to reason foolishly
And a charming old expression (sadly, not used anymore): "Et caetera pantoufle" or "Etc. pantoufle" used to end an enumeration. "In our refrigerator we have milk, eggs, butter, sour cream, etc. pantoufle."
Shopping: two books
1. French dictionary: Acclaimed by language professionals the world over, the Oxford-Hachette Dictionary has long been the market leader.
2. Barron's How to Prepare for the AP French Advanced Placement Examination
Citation du Jour:
Il y a de grands voyages qu'on ne fait bien qu'en pantoufles.
There are great journeys that are best traveled in slippers.
Audio File by Jean-Marc: listen to the French word pantoufle and the example sentence, above: Download "Pantoufle" Wav File . Download Pantoufle MP3 file
In Books & Music:
Chasing Matisse: A Year in France Living My Dream
I'll Never Be French (no matter what I do): Living in a Small Village in Brittany
In French music: Serge Lama
Songs in French for Children including Alouette, Sur le Pont d'Avignon, Claire Fontaine, Prom'non Nous dans les Bois...
More characters on the way, in the Wednesday and Friday editions! Meantime, don't miss some of my favorite personnages in my book: Words in a French Life. You'll meet "Madame Richard," "La Petite Souris", and one persnickety priest ... among many other French characters. And if you already have a copy of "Words", why not buy another copy for a friend? You might just ignite the love of French life in another, and there's no telling where this language adventure will take them. I still can't believe where it has taken me!
Three Random Words:
desseller = to unsaddle
empoté,e = awkward, maladroit, clumsy
fâcher = to make angry, to vex
A Message from Kristi: Ongoing support from readers like you keeps me writing and publishing this free language journal week after week. If you find value in this website and would like to keep it going strong, I kindly ask for your support by making a donation today. Thank you very much for being a part of this community and helping me to maintain this site and its newsletter.
Ways to contribute:
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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety
Kristi Darling - you have filled my eyes with tears of memory ... I didn't expect this little gift of your writing this morning. If everyone only knew how true each of your words are - you make me feel like I am living in the mist of a poem. Poem is not the correct word for this little story - what is (in French-of corse.)?
Posted by: Jules Greer | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 12:17 PM
Yes, if that would make her happy.
And maybe Agnes is forever hot or uncomfortable wheraring anithing.
I just found you month ago, I am artist-painter, and I am totaly in love with France, good day Simona
Posted by: Simona Berga | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 01:42 PM
What a poignant picture of a slice of life...evocative, excellent writing.
I really enjoy all aspects of French Word-a Day. A great way to learn French-it's especially helpful having vocabulary words scattered in a story like this one. Merci!
Posted by: Jan Francis | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 01:49 PM
There but for fortune, go you or I... The words of a song came to me as I read your posting this morning. I admit I cried.It would be a better world if we all reacted like your mother, with compassion. Merci.
Posted by: Carol | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 01:53 PM
Kristin -- As others have said, what a beautiful story and so beautifully written.... I agree with Carol. Would that we all had the compassion and love your mom showed Agnès.
As usual, I am reading three stories at once, and I also enjoyed Jules' magical story of her 10-year-old encounter with a magnificent gypsy woman. So visual! Sounded like the beginning of a short story or perhaps a fable? to me.
Bonne journée to you both.
Posted by: Ophelia | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 02:57 PM
A very moving story indeed, told with accuracy in the details, a cold head & a warm heart, true compassion and really great talent.
Kristin, I didn't join ´French Word-a-day´ years ago, so, never heard about Agnès and her brother Jean-Pierre before. You described them at length today, but I'd like to read a bit more about them in your archives. Could we have the dates of your newsletters mentioning them, please? (so cool to have the archives at our disposal since the February change over, and such a good idea to have, now, each newsletter coming with a date!)
I wouldn't wear my best clothes to do housework... but in the morning, I would sometimes do the washing up in my dressing gown if I feel like it. The most important thing for me is to feel comfortable … and not too hot. Have I ever done, like Agnes, any housework in my underwear??? Never, but, wait a minute...
The water in our area is “très calcaire” (very chalky) and leaves marks sticking everywhere, so, the sooner it's wiped out the better. Soap, when used with chalky water, leaves very sticky & sort of greasy (dirty) marks. I always clean the bath, and the bath screen -glass panels- immediately after my shower (which runs over a bathtub). I might even carry on wiping the tiles, window sill and washbasin. When I am doing that, I am not even dressed yet! … so, I have to confess I can do part of my housework with … nothing on!
Gardening has got a tendency to take over housework, except in the winter. Even in the middle of a hot summer day, I wouldn't do gardening in my underwear! What do I wear? old clothes. I love old jumpers, big T-shirts, tunics, tatty trousers, wide shorts (!), ancient looking anoraks... I keep the gardening clothes in the ´gardening drawer´ at the bottom of my chest of drawers.
I would very happily get changed into an appropriate gardening outfit, right now.... (rather than doing housework, or else!) but unfortunately, it's pouring with rain at the moment and the BBC weather forecast for my area in the UK is... a cocktail of light and heavy rain all day with a big drop in temperature.
Hmmm, should I wear my good old gardening clothes anyway, and do THE indoor job I keep putting off? (I'm talking about Goal No2, publicly mentioned and described in FWAD on the 17th April!...)
Posted by: Newforest | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 03:03 PM
I thoroughly enjoy your stories,commentaries and photos every morning. I learn a little also.
Posted by: Tom Hamilton | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 03:18 PM
Thanks for the nice feedback!
Simona : glad you found us. Bienvenue! And if you have a site/blog for your art, feel free to share it here via a link in your next commet.
Chère Ophelia: happy catching up and thanks for reading!
Newforest: I only wrote one story about Agnès & Jean-Pierre (not their real names!), but would love to write more about the sassy teller some day. (No room in this story). As for the archives, you won't find this story either (it has been moved forward). I think the original date was sometime in 2006 (can't remember now that I've pushed it forward). I have edited and added a lot to the story, for clarity and added detail. For those who have this story in their email archives, you'll see the changes. As for me, I've lost my email archives, since Le Big Fry! This is not a complaint, it actually feels freeing to look forward ... instead of backward!
PS: Newforest: how's that room-emptying going? Making any progress?
Posted by: Kristin | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 03:20 PM
A touching story, Kristin. What I find so interesting is that you are so quick to comment on the visual aspect of these people (for our benefit, I wonder?) not questioning what might be going on inside their saddened souls yourself. I believe that everyone has their time to blossom, and sometimes it takes an unfortunate moment to bring it out. JP is a perfect example and I hope that the same goes for Agnes when she rises above the grief and realizes that their mother is no longer suffering but in a place where no one is judged by their outward appearance but by their inward beauty.
Posted by: Angela | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 03:23 PM
Kristin - This is a remarkably touching story. It compels us all to look a little deeper at those familiar faces and situations that we encounter each day. Your story is so full of humanity. Thank you!
Posted by: Allison Geary | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 03:33 PM
Thank you for your continuing story. I do enjoy reading your adventures when I have the chance.
Posted by: Betty Wasser | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 04:25 PM
I have a question, not a comment. I need a new up-to-date French/English dictionary. I'm comparing the Collins Robert and Oxford Hachette. Both come highly recommended. The Collins is almost three times the cost, but I really want the best one available. Do you have any opinion?
Posted by: Nancy Shalen | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 04:47 PM
In response to Angela's comment..... Kristi is a master (or mistress) at her craft...painting a picture through words of life that surrounds her. The fact that her words cause us to reflect upon the contents of her characters' "saddened souls" reveals Kristi's own compassionate nature (not the lack of it!) Bravo, Kristi. Thanks for keeping our minds agile and forever inquiring.
Posted by: Sandy Maberly | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 05:26 PM
You're right, I think the "sassy teller" deserves some more attention! Can you imagine an American bank teller giving such advice to a customer? Another reason the French are so charmingly different from us. I really think it's time for another book from you, filled with the quirky characters you encounter.
Posted by: Robert Carlson | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 05:30 PM
The Oxford Hachette French/English dictionary, latest edition (4th, 2007) is excellent. The best for you to make up your mind is to go to a bookshop and spend a bit of time looking at words, in both the Oxford Hachette and Collins Robert.
I didn't work more than a (short) hour and did a lot of turning around! I have a psychological "blockage" about that job!
Actually, it stopped raining. After this tea break, I feel I'll step outside to do some gardening, in spite of the cold wind!
Posted by: Newforest | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 05:39 PM
Robert: thanks for the encouragement, always needed!
Newforest: I can so relate to that kind of a blockage. Those are "monster rooms", second only to "monster paperwork"!
Sandy & anyone interested: thanks for "getting" the story. It is one thing to describe a character (necessary when painting a portrait), another to judge him (or her). Hopefully, we learn from the characters around us, no matter the outward shell.
Posted by: Kristin | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 06:05 PM
Kristin, your writing is both evocative and provocative. Having been to many of the villages in Provence many times, the pictures you draw with your writing are clear and touching. Today is a prime example.
And don't tell anyone, but yes, I sometimes do as Agnes does. But I don't think anyone else knows!
Posted by: Susie, the francophile from Indiana | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 07:27 PM
Great writing Kristin! Loved the depth of description . One of your best pieces in my humble opinion. Here's hoping your sense of humanity will spread amongst all of us readers.
Posted by: Charles Shinn | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 08:48 PM
No,I don't do my housework in my underwear because I DON'T WEAR UNDERWEAR! :)
Posted by: Joyce | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 09:28 PM
Sorrow knows no boundaries. In spite of various cultural and linguistic differences, we are all human, and have more in common than we often know. Bon courage to Jean-Perre and sa soeur.
Posted by: Marianne Rankin | Monday, April 27, 2009 at 11:21 PM
Oh Kristin, this one breaks my heart. How understanding your mother is! My mother, now 101, tries so hard to be cheerful and face things bravely, but it is very hard..and we all face the inevitable, not knowing how it will be for us. We each need to be more understanding of others, don't we?
Posted by: Cerelle | Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 12:49 AM
I have been reading the posts and thought I would throw out to all. I am a Organizer and it seems some of you are having trouble tackling room/rooms/paperwork. Maybe I can help. Give some tips. Thought I would throw that out there.
Great story Kristin as always. I look forward to reading them.
Posted by: Karen from Phoenix, AZ | Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 01:42 AM
Kristin, yet again you have captured the intimate side of the lives of near strangers in your village. You take the time to stop, watch, listen and tell their stories with such heart. Thank you! Danielle
Posted by: Danielle | Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 05:47 AM
What a beautiful and loving story. It touched my heart. I like your mom. Rosemary
Posted by: Rosemary Lockhart | Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 07:10 AM
I don't think I'll ever think of pantoufles the same way again without being reminded of your sad, moving little story. Thanks!
Posted by: Evening Hérault | Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 06:53 PM
Les larmes aux yeux.
Posted by: Monique | Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 02:31 PM
i'll admit, i don't always read your stories on the day you post them. My life's journey is rarely in sync with my email, but I always save them and come back to them when I have a moment. This story touched me and I thank you. It evokes in me feelings of sadness, love and ultimately hope. Thank you for your beautiful gift.
Posted by: Lisa Kiely | Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 08:49 PM
Very touching and well written too. Thanks a lot.
Posted by: maya | Monday, May 04, 2009 at 10:16 PM